Even before her two sons were born, Helen Kimbrough wanted them to love books and reading. She read aloud to them “in-vitro,” she said, and continued reading to them – and with them – throughout their early childhood.
Today, Austin and Avery are 17 and 13 years old, and Kimbrough’s quest to promote reading has spread beyond her family and the walls of their Waxhaw home. She’s written three books – each with an accompanying music CD – to appeal to young children and their parents, and to help instill a love of reading.
Her books have been featured at fairs from New York to Frankfurt, Germany. But they never would have existed without a strong mix of talent and determination.
Kimbrough’s determination is underscored by an anecdote she shared from BookExpoAmerica in New York City in 2005, when her family lived in New Jersey. She went to the expo to learn more about writing and publishing – and to talk to editors, literary agents and publishers about her first book and CD set, “Ocean Waves and Other Tales,” designed for children 5 and younger.
But no one seemed interested in the book because Kimbrough, who worked in pharmaceutical sales and marketing, was an unknown writer.
“I remember standing in the Javits Center and telling the person I was pitching to, ‘Thank you, and I appreciate your time, but I’m really just going to do this anyway,’” she said. “He said, ‘OK … How are you going to do that?’ I said, ‘I’m going to create my own publishing company.’”
His doubtful expression prompted her to explain that “just because you say no, or everyone else says no, does not mean I’m going to stop fulfilling what I want to do.”
“He basically looked at me and said, ‘OK, well, you can go try that.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going to go do that. I’m not just going to try it. I’m going to go do it.’”
And she did.
She said she and her husband put their marketing and business skills to work and created the publishing company AK Classics LLC. The name comes from their sons’ initials, she said.
Then she enlisted the help of talented professionals to illustrate and design the hard-cover book, which was printed in 2007. The book’s CD, which features Kimbrough singing songs she’s written, was also professionally produced.
Combining illustrations, music and words is a great way to engage young children. She said Austin knew how to spell his name when he was only a year old because they made a habit of spelling out his name in a catchy rhyme and pointing to corresponding letters in his room.
In 2009, she published her second multicultural book and CD: “Play Dates and Other Tales,” designed for children ages 2-7. She said it was one of the books featured on Sesame Street’s recommended reading list for shows focusing on colors, numbers and music. That book/CD set, which includes Calypso and other music styles, is currently sold out and is going into a second printing, she said.
Her third book and CD set, released in 2013, is “My Soul/African American Spirituals: Embracing the Journey.” On the AK Classics website, it’s described as “a family-oriented book that honors the legacy of spirituals and symbolizes struggle, perseverance, strength, faith, hope, and freedom.”
Engaging parents and children together in the reading process is one of the best ways to encourage and improve literacy skills, said Kimbrough, who has served on the board of the Literacy Council of Union County. This is true for adults as well as children, she said.
“Some parents want instantaneous results,” she said. “And sometimes, reading isn’t instantaneous. Sometimes it’s a process. And you have to see what that person’s learning style is.”
She credits her parents for her love of reading and writing. Her mother, who has a master’s degree in education, was one of the first black teachers to integrate public schools in the Atlanta area, she said. Her father, minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Athens, Ga., has a doctorate in theology.
Her husband’s encouragement was also critical when she was starting her writing career.
“He said, ‘You’ve been wanting to really write. I don’t want you to be 60 years old and never pursued your passion. So I think you need to stop, take a moment, and start writing,’” she said.
“And that’s what I did.”
Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.